States

States Giving Performance Pay by Doling Out Bonuses

By Michele McNeil — September 06, 2006 4 min read
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In Texas this school year, teachers have money riding on their students’ achievement.

Up to $10,000, in fact, under a new program designed to reward high-performing teachers in high-poverty districts, and encourage other teachers to do better.

Though many states have debated changing the way teachers are paid, Texas is one of just three that have succeeded in linking compensation for individual teachers with student achievement. At the end of this school year, teachers in about 1,000 Texas schools will be eligible for cash bonuses, which will likely range from $3,000 to $10,000, for boosting student performance.

The state has set aside $100 million for these rewards, which will filter down to more than 10 percent of Texas schools.

The issue of pay for performance—or merit pay, as it used to be called—isn’t new, but states like Texas are eyeing bonuses as the easiest way to tie teachers’ paychecks to test scores. Unlike revamping a whole pay system, bonuses don’t carry the threat of reducing teachers’ paychecks. So Florida, Texas, and Alaska turned to cash bonuses this year.

But whether an end-of-the-year cash bonus will translate into student success is another matter.

‘Big Mistakes’

“There’s no question we need a new professional compensation structure, but we’re seeing big mistakes of the past repeated,” said Barnett Berry, the president of the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality. “States are still clearly overusing the test to gauge teacher effectiveness. If people think a 5 percent salary bonus is really going to make a big difference, they really don’t understand the teaching profession.”

Yet more states will try this approach during the 2007 legislative sessions. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is up for re-election this year, will make it a priority during the next legislative session, said Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for the Democrat. Details, however, are still being worked out.

Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich, a Republican in a tough re-election battle, announced last week that he wants to spend $800,000 next budget year to craft a new “quality compensation” system for his state’s teachers. Whether the new pay system—which would be voluntary for districts—would involve bonuses or an alternative salary structure is still to be decided, said spokesman Henry P. Fawell.

In the past decade, Arizona, Minnesota, and North Carolina have enacted different types of programs that tie teacher salaries, in part, to student achievement. School systems in Denver and Houston have also adopted performance-pay programs for teachers. (“Test-Tied Bonuses to Take Effect in Houston,” Jan. 18, 2006.)

‘Meaningful’ Amounts

No matter what proponents call such ideas—bonuses, merit pay, or performance pay—unions are still generally opposed to them. In Texas, teachers’ unions unsuccessfully fought the new bonus program.

“First, we need to do across-the-board pay raises, and then we can come back and look at things that would be fair for everyone,” said Rob D’Amico, a spokesman for the Texas Federation of Teachers, a 53,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The Texas program is aimed at the schools with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. About 1,170 of the state’s 7,900 schools were eligible to take part, and 1,098 schools have told the state education department they want to do so. Individual districts will work with teachers to figure out how they’ll evaluate performance and distribute money. Each plan, which must be submitted to the state for approval, must be crafted with significant input from teachers and include at least three letters of support from teachers, said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

Next summer, the state will award grants to schools with approved plans based on performance during this school year. The awards will range from $40,000 for the smallest schools to $200,000 for the largest. The schools will then hand out the bonuses to individual teachers based on the approved plans. Seventy-five percent of the money must go to the classroom teachers whose students scores go up. The remaining money can go to other teachers and staff members, such as reading specialists and administrators, who played a role in students’ success.

The TEA is recommending the bonuses range from $3,000 to $10,000 per teacher.

“We want it to be large enough to be meaningful,” Ms. Ratcliffe said.

Schoolwide Rewards

In Florida and Alaska—the two other states that enacted bonus programs for this school year—the rewards apply statewide, and not only to high-poverty schools.

The Florida legislature this year set aside $147.5 million for its Special Teachers Are Rewarded plan, or STAR, which replaces an earlier, unsuccessful performance-pay system. The top 25 percent of teachers in districts that choose to participate will be rewarded with cash bonuses next summer equaling 5 percent of their pay. For a teacher making $40,000, that’s a $2,000 bonus. The money will be doled out to individual teachers based on an evaluation system devised by each district and its teachers’ union and approved by state officials.

Alaska’s new program follows an older model of rewarding whole schools. The three-year program rewards all staff members in a school that shows improvement, based on a complicated formula, or in the case of an already high-performing school, sustained achievement. Certified staff members will receive $5,500, while noncertified staff, including classroom assistants and secretaries, receive $2,500. District-level personnel, such as reading specialists who serve multiple schools, are also eligible, said Roger Sampson, the state’s commissioner of education and early development.

“We believe that if we’re going to get substantial improvement,” Mr. Sampson said, “everybody in that school is responsible.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as States Giving Performance Pay by Doling Out Bonuses

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